Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Raymond Williams, Culture and Society

In the nineteenth century, a number of words in English acquired new meanings. These are:
  • Industry – Prior to the Industrial Revolution, this meant a human attribute, “skill, perseverance, diligence.” Afterward, it became a collective word for our manufacturing and producing institutions, and their general activities. Adam Smith is one of the first writers to use this word to mean a thing in itself, an institution, rather than an attribute. Industrial, industrialism, and Industrial Revolution follow suit.
  • Democracy – Prior to the French and American Revolutions, democracy was a bad word: mob- rule, agitation, Jacobinism.
  • Class – Meant a division or group in schools or colleges from 1772; changed to mean element of social structure: lower class, working class, class-prejudice, class war all follow in the course of the nineteenth century.
  • Art – Like industry, it formerly meant a human skill, but then came to mean a particular group of skills: creative or imaginative “arts.” The artist became a special type of person.
  • Culture – Used to mean a process of human training—a culture of something. Then it came to mean a thing in itself, in four ways
    • A general state or habit of the mind, closely related to the idea of human perfection
    • The general state of intellectual development, in a society as a whole
    • The general body of the arts
    • (Late nineteenth century) A whole way of life: material, intellectual, and spiritual
Thesis: The development of the word culture is a record of a number of important reactions to great historical changes in social, economic, and political life; it can be seen as a map by which to explore the changes themselves. That development merges two responses: first, the recognition of the practical separation of certain intellectual and moral activities from the driven impetus of a new kind of society; second, the emphasis of these activities, as a court of human appeal, to be set over the processes of practical social judgment, and yet offer itself as a mitigating and rallying response. Culture was not just a response to new methods of production, but was also concerned with new kinds of personal and social relationship: as a recognition of practical separation and as an emphasis of alternatives. Culture comes to mean a whole way of life, not only as a scale of integrity, but as a mode of interpreting all our common experience, and, in this new interpretation, changing it.
Part I—A Nineteenth-Century Tradition
Chapter 1: Contrasts—Edmund Burke and William Cobbett
The mood of England in the Industrial Revolution was one of contrasts. Burke, the “first modern Conservative,” and Cobbett, the “first tribune of the industrial proletariat,” are contrasted here. Their differences notwithstanding, they criticized the new England from the standpoint of the old, and initiated traditions of criticism of the new democracy and the new industrialism which remain.
Burke is the great recommender of prudence as the primary virtue of civil government. For him, politics was a business of practical expediency, not theoretical ideas. His opposition to the new agitations for democracy is based on its potential slippage into tyranny—the guarantee of the proper humanity of man is the historical community. Thus the whole progress of man is dependent not only on the abstract historical community, but on the nature of the particular community into which he is born. Burke established the idea of the State as the necessary agent of human perfection, and in terms of this the idea the aggressive individualism of the nineteenth century was bound to be condemned. He also established the idea of the “organic society,” where the emphasis is on the interrelation and continuity of human activities, rather than on separation into spheres of interest, each governed by its own laws—an ironic recommendation, as this “organic society” was being broken up before his own eyes by new economic forces.
Cobbett wrote in the manner of a popular journalist, criticizing the new industrial system as oppressive and inaugurating rampant inequality. He saw the consequences of the emerging class-structure of the new society in class-conflict, and approved the course of the rising labor movement. Yet he participated in the idealization of the medieval (viz. communal vs. individualist) that many conservative writers did, his standard being “the England into which I was born.” Thus Burke and Cobbett, though antagonistic thinkers, shared a tradition of criticism, albeit compounded of very different and even directly contradictory elements. The continuing attack on the driving philosophy of the new industrialism made even stranger affiliations: Marx, for example, wrote against capitalism in the manner of Burke and Cobbett. So too the connections between Robert Southey and Robert Owen, one a Tory reformer and the other a utopian socialist, who both asserted: a) that the change in the conditions of production effects an essential change in the human producers, and b) that the Industrial Revolution was such a major change, and produced what was virtually a new kind of human being.
Chapter 2: The Romantic Artist
Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and other poets of the early nineteenth century, saw their conclusions about personal feeling as conclusions about society, and observations of natural beauty as carrying a necessary moral reference to the whole and unified life of man. The stereotyped opposition between the poet and sociologist is on the whole a late development, though doubtless a product of the Romantic movement. For these artists, however, poetry and political commentary were inseparable. At this time of political, social, and economic change, there was also radical change in the concept of art, the artist, and their place in society. There are five main points:
  • A major change was taking place in the relationship between a writer and his readers.
    • Rise of a middle-class reading public turned systems of patronage into commercial publishing. This at once removed the writer from the stricture of patronal caprice, and threw him into the literary marketplace.
  • A different habitual attitude toward the “public” was establishing itself.
    • One of the primary sources for the idea of “culture”: Wordsworth's insistence on the “embodied spirit of a People,” the true standard of excellence, as something superior to the usual run of the market.
  • The production of art was coming to be regarded as one of a number of specialized kinds of production, subject to much the same conditions as general production.
    • This followed from the institution of commercial publishing. A critique of mechanical artistic production closely mirrored that of industrial production, and the abstraction of Culture, together with Art, became a standard against which authenticity was to be measured.
  • A theory of the “superior reality” of art, as the seat of imaginative truth, was receiving increased emphasis.
  • The idea of the independent creative writer, the autonomous genius, was becoming a kind of rule.
Artists began to view themselves as bearers of the creative imagination. This was another of the principal sources for the idea of Culture. In the work of artists was a practicable mode of access to that ideal of human perfection which was to be the center of defense against the disintegrating tendencies of the age. Emphasis on creative imagination was also an alternative construction of human motive and energy to the assumptions of the prevailing political economy. Under pressure, Art became a symbolic abstraction for a whole range of human experience, a creative sensibility, an exalted special temperament, in contrast to merely “skill” or “practice.”
Chapter 3—Mill on Bentham and Coleridge
Mill's attempt to absorb and unify the truths of both the utilitarian and the idealist positions is a prologue to the subsequent history of English thinking about society and culture. Mill tempered Bentham's utilitarian philosophy, which organized and regulated merely the business parts of social arrangements, with Coleridge's emphasis on the spiritual interests and welfare of society. What he latched onto in Coleridge was a “philosophy of human culture,” which saw, “in the character of the national education existing in any political society, at once the principal cause of its permanence as a society, and the chief source of its progressiveness.” The emphasis on Culture was Mill's way of enlarging the Utilitarian tradition. The social idea of Culture, now introduced into English thinking, expressed value in terms independent of “civilization,” and of the progress of society. The standard of perfection, of “the harmonious development of those qualities and faculties that characterize our humanity” (Coleridge, Constitution of Church and State), was now available not merely to influence society, but to judge it. Mill's later work is dominated by two factors: his extension of the methods and claims of Utilitarian reform to the interests of the rising working class, and his effort to reconcile democratic control with individual liberty. He thought that culture—as impressed upon him by Coleridge—was adequately provided for, in terms of a social institution, by the extending system of national education. His can be called a “humanized Utilitarianism.”
Chapter 4—Thomas Carlyle
The idea of culture as a whole way of life receives a new emphasis in Carlyle. It is the ground of his attack on Industrialism: that a society is comprised of much more than economic relationships. Here the idea of culture as a body of arts and learning and as a body of values superior to the ordinary progress of society meet. Carlyle furthered the conception of a “spiritual aristocracy,” a highly cultivated and responsible minority, concerned to define and emphasize the highest values at which society must aim. However, the then-existing organization of society offered no actual basis for the maintenance of such a class: Culture came to be defined as a separate entity and a critical idea.
[There is a lot at the beginning of this chapter about Carlyle's critiques of the “mechanical age,” but the paragraph summary above is from the part of the chapter most relevant to the thesis. I am also omitting Chapter 5, a series of book reviews of “Industrial Novels” (eg. Hard Times), which provide “some of the most vivid descriptions of life in an unsettled industrial society.” It isn't difficult to see where this is going: a common criticism of industrialism, but in which sympathy for suffering under oppressive working conditions is transformed not into action, but into withdrawal. It is the person, not the People, against the system.]
Chapter 6—Matthew Arnold
The chapter starts with J.H. Newman, but his ideal is the same as that of Coleridge: the work of perfection (“the harmonious development of qualities, etc. etc.) was emphasized in opposition to the Utilitarian tendency to conceive of education as the training of men to carry out particular tasks in a particular kind of civilization. Arnold wrote an important work called Culture and Anarchy. He defined culture as “the study of perfection,” which “leads us...to conceive of true human perfection as a harmonious perfection, developing all sides of our humanity; and as a general perfection, developing all parts of our society.” Arnold draws heavily on Coleridge, Burke, Newman, and Carlyle. But he was most influential in putting his revaluation of society into practice; as an inspector of schools, and independently, his effort to establish a system of general and humane education was intense and sustained. His emphasis on State power, however, lends itself to a kind of authoritarianism: the confusion between the ideal State which is the agent of perfection, and the actual State which embodies particular powers and interests, becomes dangerous and disabling. Moreover, there is a further danger in Arnold's version of Culture becoming a kind of fetish: perfection is a becoming and culture is a process, but part of the effect of Arnold's argument is to create around them the suggestion that they are absolutes. The problem is in many ways due to the difference between him and his influences: Burke drew on an existing society; Coleridge drew from the values known from the older society; Newman believed in a divine order; Arnold, however, defined culture as a process but could not find the material for that process in the society of his day. Hence the process became an abstraction, one without an absolute ground.
Chapter 7—Art and Society
An essential hypothesis in the development of the idea of culture is that the art of a period is closely and necessarily related to the generally prevalent “way of life,” and further that, in consequence, aesthetic, moral, and social judgments are closely interrelated. In nineteenth century England, the important names are Pugin, Ruskin, and Morris. Pugin arrived from criticizing change of architecture (away from the Gothic) to criticizing a civilization. Ruskin's social criticisms arose from his thinking about the purpose of art: in his criticisms of art, his standard was always “Typical Beauty,” the absolute evidence of “the universal grand design”; in his social criticism, his concern was with “the felicitous fulfillment of function in living things,” and with the conditions of “the joyful and right exertion of perfect life in man.” He found the special qualities of the artist generally lacking in nineteenth century society, prevented from emergence by a mechanical habit of apprehension. Not only is a national art thus impossible, the whole society is therefore bad. His thinking is best understood in the context of a transition between thinking about art and thinking about society, which in turn is marked by changes in the meanings of culture. But his attempts at reform were unhelpful and dull; the significance of Morris is that he sought to attach the general values of this tradition of thinking to the growing force of the organized working class. For him, art was a particular quality of labor, delight in which work had been destroyed by the machine-system of production. The arts defined a quality of living which it was the whole purpose of political change—specifically, socialist change—to make possible.
[I have omitted Part II, “Interregnum,” because it is a series of short snippets of relatively uninfluential writers. Williams himself introduces the section with the following caveat: “[W]e shall not find in them...anything very new: a working-out, rather, of unfinished lines; a tentative redirection.”]
Part III—Twentieth Century Opinions
Chapter 1—D.H. Lawrence
The points Lawrence took from the nineteenth-century tradition can be summarized as follows:
  • The general condemnation of industrialism as an attitude of mind.
  • Human purpose is seen as debased to sheer mechanical materialism.
  • The condition of the mechanical, disintegrated mind is what has led to the ugliness of an industrial society.
  • Industrialism is the forcing of all human energy into a competition of mere acquisition.
According to Lawrence, all our effort must tend toward preserving spontaneous life-activity, against the rigidities of category and abstraction of which the industrial system is so powerful an abstraction. This is the weakness of social movements: the life-activity forced into fixed ideals. Lawrence's attitude to equality removes from the idea the element of mechanical abstraction, and emphasizes relationship, the acceptance of “present otherness.” He has been vulgarized into a romantic rebel, and although there is plenty in his work to support this, he was fundamentally an exile who wanted to commit himself, but rejected the terms of commitment. For Williams, this is the tragedy: the working-class boy who did not live to come home.
[I have omitted Chapter 2, “R.H. Tawney.” Who in the world is R.H. Tawney?]
Chapter 3—T.S. Eliot
In The Idea of a Christian Society, Eliot claims that industrialism, when it is unregulated, tends to create not a society but a mob; he is afraid that thus the religious-social complex on which a Christian organization of society is based would be undermined. His essential conservatism is even more evident in Notes towards the Definition of Culture; its importance is twofold: its adoption of the meaning of “culture” as a “whole way of life,” and its effort to distinguish between “elite” and “class.” Williams' final critique serves as a good summary: Eliot's theoretical persistence in the view of culture as a whole way of life seems only to be matched by his refusal to observe its practical implications. It is clear that in the new conservatism (much inferior to that of Coleridge and Burke), a genuine theoretical objection to the principle and the effects of an individualist society is combined, and has to be combined, with adherence to the principles of an economic system which is based precisely on this “atomist,” individualist view. The “free economy” which is the central tenet of contemporary conservatism [Ed. We would call it “classical,” as this was written in the 1950s], not only contradicts the social principles which Eliot advances, but also is the only available method of ordering society to the maintenance of those interests and institutions on which Eliot believes his values to depend. Against the actual and powerful program for the maintenance of social classes, and against the industrial capitalism which maintains the human divisions which endorses, the occasional observation of the immorality of usury and exploitation seems feeble—it could be afforded if culture were only a specialized product, but if culture is a “whole way of life,” then the system must be judged as a whole.
[If anyone knows who I.A. Richards and F.R. Leavis are, then enjoy reading Chapter 4, “Two Literary Critics.” If not, then meditate on the pseudo-Latin epigram studere, studere: post mortem, quid valere?]
Chapter 5—Marxism and Culture
A Marxist theory of culture will recognize diversity and complexity, will take account of continuity within change, will allow for chance and certain limited autonomies, but, with these reservations, will take the facts of the economic structure and the consequent social relations as the guiding string on which a culture is woven, and by following which a culture is to be understood. Much of the “Marxist” writing in English of the '30s was basically the old Romantic protest that there was no place in contemporary society for the artist and the intellectual; a tradition proceeding from the Romantics through Arnold and Morris was supplemented by certain phrases from Marx, while continuing to operate in the old terms. This is understandable insofar as Marx's dismissal of culture (viz. “[men's] existence determines their consciousness”) was shocking to thinkers and artists who considered themselves pioneers of humanity; it had to be shown that Marxists gave high value to culture. Moreover, not only was past and present culture to be interpreted in Marxist terms, future culture had to be predicted. However, Williams repudiates the kind of Marxist literary criticism where literature is defined solely in terms of its political affiliations. Literature is obviously a social activity, and value does seem to lie in the writer's access to certain kinds of energy that can be discussed in directly literary terms, but which have a more-than-literary origin, and lie in the whole complex of a writer's relations with reality. It is the identification of this energy with participation in a particular kind of social or political activity which is not proven.
The question relating to Marxist impact on our thinking about culture: is the economic element in fact determining? Williams says it is unanswerable. Even if the economic element is determining, it determines a whole way of life, and it is to this, rather than to the economic system, that literature has to be related. The interpretive method which is governed by the arbitrary correlation of the economic situation and the subject of study leads very quickly to abstraction and unreality, and the overriding of practical concrete judgments by generalizations. To describe English life, thought, and imagination over the last three hundred years simply as “bourgeois” is to surrender reality to a formula. If you get into the habit of thinking that a bourgeois society produces a bourgeois culture, then you are likely to think that socialist society produces socialist culture; most of this speculation has been nothing but Utopian, and untrustworthy. From their emphasis on the interdependence of all elements of social reality, and from their analytic emphasis on movement and change, Marxists should logically use “culture” in the sense of a whole way of life, a general social process.
[Chapter 6 on George Orwell is a moving tribute but analytically poor. I will forge on ahead to the conclusion.]
The idea of culture is a general reaction to a general and major change in the conditions of our common life. Its basic element is its effort at total qualitative assessment. The new conditions, however, were neither uniform nor static. Hence though the idea of culture describes a common inquiry, the conclusions, as well as the starting points, have been diverse. Thus what it indicates is a process, not a conclusion. The various arguments do not point to any inevitable action or affiliation; it is up to us to decide which to take up.
It is worth drawing a distinction between “bourgeois culture”—the basic individualist idea and the institutions, manners, and habits of thought that proceed from it—and “working-class culture”—the basic collective idea, and the institutions, manners, and habits of thought and intention that proceed from it. The basic distinction is not language, or dress, or leisure, but between alternative ideas of the nature of social relationship. The culture that the working-class has produced, and which should be recognized as a remarkable creative achievement, is the collective democratic institution.
In its definition of common interest as true self-interest, in its finding of individual verification primarily in the community, the idea of solidarity is potentially the real basis of a society. To rid oneself of the illusion of the objective existence of the “masses,” and to move towards a more actual and more active conception of human beings and relationships, is in fact to realize a new freedom. The idea of a common culture brings together, in a particular form of social relationship, at once the idea of natural growth and that of its tending. The former is a type of romantic individualism, the latter a type of authoritarian training. Yet each marks a necessary emphasis. Any culture, in its whole process, is a selection, a tending. The distinction of a common culture is that the selection is freely and commonly made and remade. The tending is a common process, based on common decisions, which comprehends the actual variations of life and growth. The natural growth and the tending are parts of a mutual process, guaranteed by the fundamental principle of the equality of being.


  1. Thanks for this very useful summary. You can see William's brilliant but often overly reductive critique clearly here. Just one point - you say things like: "R.H. Tawney. Who in the world is R.H. Tawney?" I understand this if you lacked time and didn't want to do a full analysis, but just because a once influential figure has dropped from view slightly should not mean that they get excluded. AL Rowse argued that Tawney "exercised the widest influence of any historian of his time, politically, socially and, above all, educationally". Probably for his Christianity and socialism which seem out of date now, Tawney has not aged well. But in the sense that Williams likes to use words as map for social changes, you should include the chapter on Tawney in the interest of seeing how Williams characterises figures who are forgotten today.